Think it’s another boring war movie? Think again.
The year is 1940. In the midst of World War II, a fierce battle meets it’s dead end on a warn torn beach in Dunkirk, France. British and French soldiers have been cut off and cornered by the Germans to the lonely edges of this French port. The Germans have air superiority, bombing the helpless men below with ease; so the only way out for those who want to survive is the sea. With the risk of German bombers overhead, the Allied troops are easy prey. However, their prayers are answered. Not just in the form of the Royal Navy but also through the symbolic spirit of 700 civilian led vessels that contributed to the healthy return of 300,000 men back to England.
Firstly, I’ll have to admit I was SO looking forward to this film. Christopher Nolan is one of my all time favourite directors, so I and many others I’m sure had seriously high hopes for Dunkirk and did it disappoint? Hell no! War films tend to split people down the middle as they are either done well and produce good, thoughtful action; or they are the typical ‘lets just blow everything up and make it look like a blockbuster’. When I asked people to come and see it with me, everyone assumed it would be the latter and be dreadfully boring. BOY, were they wrong.
With this being Nolan’s shortest film for decades, he re-introduces his prevalent interest in time that we have seen so frequently in his previous works. He divides the film into three clever narratives depicted through the elements -land, sea and air. They unfold at different rates – one week, one day and one hour. We journey through in a slalom like fashion between the three which at times can cause mild confusion, but it seamlessly collides together to give a raw perspective on survival.
Nolan is amazing at simplifying what we see on the screen, yet his execution is delivered so well that we feel completely enveloped in the story. This episodic structure is the perfect catalyst to build and build the tension, the angst, the worry, the anticipation; he takes you there. He takes you to each element to show you what every human did to survive and my god, I left that cinema completely drained. I left feeling like I had a weight on my shoulders, because I had been apart of that journey for 106 minutes (yes, that short!)
Visually, it is just stunning. The opening shot alone was so symbolic I immediately sat there and thought ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for what’s coming’. Nolan shot the majority the film on IMAX cameras and that is how it was meant to be seen. Each frame is stripped back yet artfully constructed. Symbolism is everywhere. Compile this with the soundtrack of the one and only, Hans Zimmer, and you are left with a work of art.
Moments of eerie silence can suddenly be disturbed with the slow rise of the spitfires rumbling in the background. At the very moment they attack, a thunderous wave just shudders you to the very core and almost makes you want to duck for cover yourself. One thing that surprised me was the lack of dialogue. It’s never been a ‘Nolan-esque’ theme but overall, it works entirely with the film rather than against it. There is no detailed storyline, there’s no complete background to the characters, it is just their fight for survival; right here and now.
A lack of dialogue means a bigger reliance on the cast to deliver authentic performances and they didn’t disappoint either. I must admit, I wasn’t blown away by anyone in particular but they all did a stellar job. With the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy, the new kids on the block (Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Jack Lowden) had big boots to fill.
Although in my opinion, there were a few teething problems, they did one heck of a job. To convey such intense emotion without saying much at all is a hard task to master but they did it well. For me, Tom Hardy comes up trumps. Remember The Dark Knight Rises when he basically acted with his eyes throughout the entire film? Well he does the same thing here, just with a Spitfire helmet. Maybe Nolan just likes covering his pretty little face? Makes the job a bit more difficult, eh?
Dunkirk isn’t your typical war film – it’s much better than that. It doesn’t dwell on the horror of war, but rather the depths of humanity, bravery, patriotism. It shows the story for what it was. There’s nothing fancy, nothing over the top – but don’t mistake it for a plain film. You are encased on this fight just as much as they are; you can’t leave and you have no choice but to experience this alongside them. Nolan does this perfectly.
To some this may not be the case. If you allow yourself to become consumed within the film then you will be overwhelmed with awe and emotion. One thing I noticed was the distinct lack of identity, we don’t know most of the main characters first names until the end of the second half. I bloody loved this. When we sit in that cinema, we lose our identity for 106 minutes. We are put in the same position as those humans on screen, we feel everything with them. If you are a Nolan fan, you will love this film. If not, watch it anyway – this is what excellent filmmaking is all about.